Worried about rising crime rates, Tamaqua mother of two Chris Noecker in 2004 applied for a License to Carry Firearms from Schuylkill County.
"It was prompted by concerns for my safety and the safety of my sons," she said. "I researched various guns and decided which one was in my price range and would be something I could handle."
Noecker, who learned shooting and firearm safety as a child, was one of the 107,285 people in Pennsylvania that year to obtain what is commonly called a "carry permit."
The numbers of such permits has been increasing. Statewide, the figures jumped by 64.3 percent – from 86,706 to 142,477 – between 2000 to 2010. During the same period in Monroe County, the numbers exploded 106.3 percent, from 713 to 1,471.
Schuylkill County saw a 58.6 percent increase, from 1,628 to 2,583, and Carbon County's numbers grew by 66.8 percent, from 688 to 1,148.
The growth is apparently continuing. Monroe County issued 1,786 permits last year, and 921 so far this year, said Sheriff Todd A. Martin. Schuylkill County issued 2,655 last year, and a whopping 1,409 so far this year, said Sheriff Joseph G. Groody. Carbon County has issued 678 permits so far this year, according to Sheriff Dwight Nothstein. Last year's numbers were not available. State police spokesman Sgt. Anthony Manetta said statewide figures for last year and this year are still being gathered.
About the permits
The permits, good for five years, are not issued to minors, convicted felons, domestic abusers or others who would be likely to endanger others. They can be obtained by filling out an application, paying a fee, which varies by county. The applicant brings the completed paperwork, along with a photo identification, in person to the county sheriff's office.
The application asks a number of questions designed to weed out those of poor character, alcohol or drug problems, and criminals.
The sheriff then has 45 days to do a background check, via the Pennsylvania Instant Check system, and either issue or deny the application.
In Pennsylvania, a license to carry is required to conceal a gun on one's person (except at home or in one's place of business), or to have a firearm in a vehicle. One does not need a license to openly carry a firearm (except in Philadelphia), although doing that may result in public panic and police involvement.
Carry permit applications do not ask for proof of firearms skills or safety knowledge. Noecker, who keeps her skills fresh with regular visits to local outdoor ranges, has her handguns equipped with cable locks and kept unloaded in locked boxes, and the keys are with her at all times.
Reasons for the increase
Local sheriffs believe the increase in carry permits can be traced to fear of crime, drugs – and the government.
Schuylkill County's Groody said he's noticed that more women have gotten the permits.
"That's their right to protection," he said.
A police officer for 31 years, Groody said the struggling economy is also a trigger in the surge of permits.
"It seems that when the economy starts getting into a scramble, crime starts going up," he said. "
We've had quite the upswing. It seems since 2008, we've been running between 3,000 to 4,000 permits a year. That's a lot," he said. "And of course, you have the drug problems, especially people using bath salts."
Groody has reached the point where he is opening his office on some Saturdays to process applications. On April 14, he processed 149 applications. Additional Saturday and weekday hours are also planned.
Carbon County's Nothstein said crime is the driving factor in the climbing numbers of carry permits.
"There have been more and more home invasions," he said. "And drug problems are really up. Everyone who is breaking into homes seems to have a drug problem. The economy also contributes – people are turning to stealing."
Monroe County Sheriff Martin, however, sees a different kind of fear driving the increase.
It's "more due to the many of pro-gun owners concerns that President Obama, being an anti-gun individual, and his administration, will be moving forward to limit their 'right to bear arms and purchase the same' in the near future," he said.
None of the three believed that Pennsylvania's recently expanded Castle Doctrine would spur further increase. Gov. Tom Corbett signed the measure last June, giving people the right to use deadly force to protect themselves, others and property in public places. The expansion eliminated the requirement that people must first try to get away from perceived attackers, except when confronted inside their homes, vehicles or businesses.
"That law has been in effect long before they signed (the expansion). Nobody in Carbon County has ever been convicted of anything for defending their home," Nothstein said.